Gallic Genius

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100

At last the Alpine-Renault comes to Britain — minus its patronym. The young successful half-brother has been adopted by the family. Alpine-Renault, the tiny specialist car builder which grew into the torch-bearer for the Regie in competition through the ’60s and ’70s and became an independent part of the giant corporation’s line up in 1965, has produced its most sophisticated and impressive car ever. But the first purely Alpine project to be officially listed in Britain has left its Alpine prefix behind in Dieppe and arrives here as a plain Renault — the GTA.

Aimed directly at prestige rivals like Lotus Excel and Porsche 944, this high-performance four-seater pitches Renault into a new market sector. Rapid turbocars have become synonymous with the French marque over the last few years, but even at the top end these have been variants of comfortable saloons, such as the very rapid 25 V6 Turbo. Sporting flair wan supplied by first the 5 Gordini and latterly the 5 GT Turbo, in line with the general shift towards small, fast three-door four-seaters but, perhaps aided by this new emphasis on performance, the market for rapid coupes in all European markets has blossomed, reaching record UK levels of nearly 6,000 cars in 1985.

Over half of those were Porsches, 944 in the main, while the Excel found 550 customers in the same year. This group of customers is too valuable to be ignored, but large-scale manufacturers cannot normally expect to recoup their huge investment in a new model with sales of such relatively small quantities. Both Porsche and Lotus sell nothing else other than these specialist cars; but just as VW uses the Karmann plant for its small specialist projects, Renault had already made use of the Alpine works at Dieppe to assemble the turbocharged 5 in both its incarnations, as well as the mid-engined Turbo 5 which dominated the European rally scene in the early ’80s. But the Dieppe plant was more than an assembly shop: since 1965 the Alpine operation had sold its products through the Regie’s dealers under the name Alpine-Renault, and such was the little team’s racing and rally success that from 1968 the whole Renault competition programme was handed over to Alpine to administer.

Though Formulae 2 and 3, and later sports prototypes such as the Le Mans winning A442 of 1978, all proved the worth of the team, it was the rallying success of the little A110 Berlinette which brought respect to the Alpine name.

Introduced in 1961, five years after the Alpine name first appeared on a little car built by Jean Redele, rally driver and Mille Miglia class winner, the A110 derived its unusual layout from the mechanicals borrowed from the Renault 4CV. A rear-mounted four-in-line engine drove the rear wheels through a transaxle mounted in unit with it; a steel backbone chassis took the stresses, and the whole was clothed in a pretty fibreglass body. Kept in the limelight by its seemingly unstoppable rallying successes, peaking in 1971 with the first three places on the Monte Carlo rally and the title of World Rally Champion, the Berlinette continued to be produced, visually unaltered, until 1977, totalling over 7,000 examples.

This long run was unexpected, indeed, something of a fluke, for the A110 replacement was being designed as early as 1969, and was unveiled in 1971. Called the A310, the new car was a much roomier 2+2 with a striking hard-edged beetle-back shape again made of GRP (fibreglass), and enclosing a similar steel backbone. The power unit, still hung over the rear axle, was the same long-serving block which had propelled the Berlinette, this time only available in the larger 1600cc form.

It was an attractive car, not as nimble as its ultralight predecessor, but reasonably well-behaved, and it was well received in France without making a great impact elsewhere. In competition its unsophisticated and diminutive engine was inadequate, and completely outclassed by the time the all-conquering Lancia Stratos arrived to snatch the laurels.

But another development was on hand; to make room for assembling the new Renault 5 Alpine (Gordini in the UK), the competitions department moved elsewhere under the name Renault Sport, leaving the Dieppe outfit to concentrate on road cars, and in 1976 the A310 stepped up into a bigger league. Out came the thrashy four-banger, and in went the PRV 2.7-litre V6 from the Renault 30. This was a straightforward transfer, as the big saloon followed the company’s general practice (until lately) of sticking to a longitudinal layout, while the reversed gearbox was already there. The engine had only to be shifted to the rear, and being an alloy unit the weight distribution was acceptable.

Sales of the car, flagging in the wake of the fuel scare, jumped again, and the 1600 version was dropped, although ironically the venerable A110 soldiered on until the following year, 1977.

Complicated variants of production cars, such as the Sporting 5 and its Turbo developments, are expensive to build, so the Alpine plant has proved very valuable to Renault, enabling the development and construction in small quantities of such specials on the 5 Turbo, the outrageous mid-engined flying brick which put France back on the map of rally success in the early 80s. Conversely, the entire range of Renault skills and facilities has been available in developing the newest Alpine into a refined and impressive sportscar which for the first time is a genuine Porsche rival.

To avoid any confusion with the Chrysler Alpine, UK-spec versions of the new car lose the reference to their admirable background, though that name is not so well known in Britain in any case. And putative Porsche purchasers are not necessarily as interested in history as prestige, something the French giant has gradually built with some luxurious cars as the R25 V6.

And it is this model which supplies the basic power unit for the GTA, as well as suspension components: R25 wishbones support the front of the GTA, with Fuego steering. Both turbo and unblown versions are available, and both are higher performers than in the saloon: the 2.85-litre normally-aspirated engine claims 160 bhp, with 166 lb ft of torque at 3,500 rpm, but is eclipsed by its boosted brother which thumps out tractor torque of 214 lb ft at a loafing 2,500 rpm, with the power soaring to 200 bhp at a smooth 5,750 rpm.

Compact head design places the single chain-driven cam on each bank low down between the valve stems, and while a large circular air-filter tops the twin downdraught curbs of the 2.85, the blown unit sports a pair of cast manifolds in the vee fed, via an intercooler, by the turbine above the clutch. Diet is the responsibility of Renault’s own knock-sensitive electronic injection management system.

This muscular-looking package comes to light by pulling the internal release for the rear window which lifts on gas struts; a black-carpeted moulding then lifts to reveal the engine. But even the engine-cover does an ingenious job: it incorporates air ducts which connect with rubber seals to an outlet grille in the rear spoiler, extracting hot air from the compartment.

Controlling airflow has been one of Renault’s biggest achievements with this super-slippery vehicle: although the GTA is 4in wider than its predecessor the A310, drag is down by 13% helped by integrated bumpers, flush headlamps, glazing and door catches, a smooth undertray, and clever inlets and outlets to the engine bay.

GRP is again used for the body, differing plastics and moulding methods being chosen for various components, and these are assembled onto the sheet steel backbone (built by Heuliez, one of Renault’s truck divisions) to form first a floor-pan, to which are attached the steel-reinforced body sides, pre-assembled complete nearby, followed by the roof and screen rails. This bonded structure is then ready to accept the bulk of the mechanical components, before the rigid panels (doors, dash, and bonnet) and the flexible ones (bumpers, nose, and wings) are affixed.

And the word “flexible” is no exaggeration — during a visit to the Dieppe factory, journalists were shown a wing being bent double and springing back to shape.

More ingenuity is apparent in the general layout of this generous 2+2: nearly 3in has been added to the wheel-base, and the rear wheels have been moved an inch further back, relative to the differential, to improve weight distribution. The entire power train, complete with double wishbone suspension (derived from the 310 via the R5 Turbo), attaches to a removeable subframe for easy repair. A spacesaver spare tyre lives alongside.

Rear passengers sit on either side of the five-speed gearbox, and the backbone runs through to meet the front wishbones at the lower level of a double-deck layout. Below, ahead of the axle, is a well full of fuel, and up front is the radiator, fed from a low grille and exhausting under the car. Above all this, there is a small luggage compartment on the off-side, and alongside this the top half of the large fuel tank whose filler is thus under the front lid, surrounded by a platesized rubber seal to prevent spills.

Push-button doors are a streamlining feature — press, and the door springs open an inch. A separate level releases rear occupants.

Some cars feel right the moment the driver settles in his seat, and this is one of those. From the semi-reclined position all the chunky controls are to hand, and the immediate feeling is of solidity — firm throttle pressure, heavy but positive gearchange, and, once rolling, a solid ride too.

Perhaps the fascia seems flimsier than the Stuttgart rival, but it looks more stylish: a deep panel with angled wings rests on a plain dash. In the wings are the vent grilles and the large rectangular push-buttons which control foglamps and the trip computer, and a central cowl shrouds the instruments, large round dials for speed and revs, plus three small gauges for water temperature, oil pressure, and oil level. The last, reading only with the ignition off, is a Renault feature which is long overdue on every other car; we have injection systems which balance dozens of parameters instantaneously, but we still have to skin our knuckles on grubby metal prongs under the bonnet. Absurd.

The dials, however, are obscured by reflections in the glass in daylight, and are too dim to see at night. Similarly, the shiny plastic reflects sunshine badly in the huge flat screen, though in all other directions the view is very good, since the rear sail panels are also glass.

Between the main dials is a small LCD panel giving a digital fuel readout, not always easy to see, and the trip computer’s figures. There are only four readings: distance run, average speed, average fuel thirst, and distance to empty, these selected by successive prods of the large button. It is simple and useful, without being distracting.

Not so the extensive and powerful Philips radio/cassette which is standard on both versions: this all-black extravaganza takes up as much space as a small home unit but relies on rows of identical square black buttons which cannot be distinguished by sight or touch once the sun goes down — an ergonomic disaster of the first water.

Behind the hi-fi, the wide tunnel carries the short-action gearlever, window switches, and the heating controls, which are clear and logical, although I always had one hot foot and one cold. Behind this again are two useful little lockers. Black velour covers the squared-off seats which include squab rake adjustment and plenty of sideways bolstering, and which did a fine job over 1,000 miles of fast driving. Amazingly, headroom in the tightly-sculpted rear seats is only 40 mm less than up front, though the broad gearbox in the centre favours those of lesser girth.

My conception of a Grand Tourer is clearly answered in the Renault GTA, so I chose to give it a weekend sprint to Scotland and back — which turned out more testing than I had planned.

By the time I arrived at Staples Corner, the source of the M1, I had already learned about the firm crisp gear-shift, the bottom-hinged pedals (inadequate space between clutch and brake), the taut steering but disappointingly large turning circle, and the stiff ride, and was keen to see the results of invoking all 200 horsepower.

With its huge torque this is of course a flexible car, giving lots of urge from as low as 1800 rpm, but a small dip in the torque around 3500 rpm tends to give the impression that the blower does its job after this point — the graph says this is not true, but nevertheless one tends to make the engine work in the relatively restricted band from here to the 6000 rpm cut-off.

It takes some acclimatisation to let the turbo do the work. Stay in fourth, ease the wheel over, and extend the right foot and the low vehicle surges past most things; a caravan on a tight road might require third, but be prepared to grab fourth almost immediately, the second you hit 87 mph.

Firm springing and effective noise insulation disguise just how fast the GTA V6 Turbo is — there is very little acceleration squat, and the sound effects, composed of an equal blend of fat tyres and cubic inches, vary from a muted rumble in town to a muted roar in full flight. But it is a real express — 0-60 mph in 7.0 sec — and thanks to its ultra-smooth skin (Renault’s boast is that it has the lowest air resistance of any production car in the world) it will sweep on to 155 mph.

So what happens at 100, when 61% of the car’s weight is over the rear wheels? Nothing much, except that the car runs straight and true with none of the alarming lightness of steering that affects some bluffer shapes. The wedge nose and smooth underpan reduce frontal lift to a mere 5% at 125 mph. But it does have one noticeable characteristic: from about 60 mph upwards, a small but steady weaving motion is felt through the wheel. The car only moves by an inch or two each way, and its overall aim remains arrow-straight even if you take your hands off the wheel at 110. This is presumably the self-correction effect (dialled in with castor angle or trail) necessary to counter the reverse weathercock response of the tail heavy car, and it takes a short while to become accustomed to it.

But this characteristic was no match for the storm I encountered on my November trip. Gaining the A1 north of Newcastle I could feel the Renault being pushed sideways by strong gusts, and naturally the higher the speed the further the car swerves. But this was a foul night; in general the effect of, say, passing a bus is limited and predictable.

To keep the back end on the rails the methods of limiting oversteer have employed in a well-engineered blend: rear tyres are much wider than the fronts (255x45x15 on 8 1/2 in rims as against 195/50 x15 on 6 in), the centre of gravity is low, and under power the chassis tends to run wide. Since the rear is unlikely to step out due to its impressive grip, the GTA tends to turn into corners with a rather neutral balance, changing to mild understeer on acceleration out of the bend. It is all predictable and easy to control — no opposite lock bravery here, just let the tyres (Pirelli P7 on the Turbo, Michelin TRX on V6) do all the work.

And the V6 Turbo shares with the Porsche 944 Turbo a partt-throttle controllability which enables the driver to trim his path smoothly with both throttle and the nicely sculpted Alpine steering-wheel.

My rain-blasted journey to Scotland, had tested out the twin halogen lamps (very powerful even on the dip) and the elliptical pattern wipers which meet in the middles slightly out of phase, like a drunk trying to clap hands. (More than one passenger complained about the gape these left, though as it is in front of the left-hand seat the driver does not see it.) But the return trip turned, in part at least, into one of those blissful, blistering runs when everything is on your side. To offset the tedious miles of motorway ahead, I elected to leave Edinburgh on the A68 towards Jedburgh and eventually Newcastle.

Amongst the bare Lammermuir Hills, the long wide-open curves drew the squat coupe on, speed and G-forces building up together before the hefty ventilated discs came into play ready to dip down into a narrow defile. Light pressure on the wheel to flick left and right along the bank of a river, third gear punch being the only ratio needed to stitch these tight curves together, the nose darting in or out at will to skirt a pothole or grab an inch or two extra of tarmac while the Garrett turbine takes another breath and launches itself forwards.

Up out of the trees onto an undulating moor, the massive tyres actually seem to stick to the road as it falls away beneath the car — this must be an aerodynamic effect, letting the car follow the road instead of lifting its nose over a crest. With such long views, hazards are visible far ahead, and the driver of the occasional truck seems to have been watching the white machine enlarge frame by frame in his mirror as it crests successive brows, finally waving the Renault past with a thumbs up.

Inside everything is placid, if not silent; the bonnet drops out of sight, heightening the sensation of speed. The interior mirror is just at eye-level and cuts the view ahead on certain corners, but the electric door mirrors offer an excellent rear picture over the bulging rear arches. Ventilation is efficient, the stubby stalks (indicators left, wipers right) are a finger-stretch away; in fact only the distant handbrake, tucked down by the driver’s right knee, is less than well-placed, and nothing like as bad as on a 944.

It is a good environment from which to control this unusual and capable car, which demonstrated its character no strongly on its Caledonian journey. Where a Lotus displays poise at speed, the Renault displays instead a stubborn refusal to be deflected, except of course by cross-winds; its pilot, rather than exploring a line between over and understeer, is merely varying the understeer with the light, fast steering, or cancelling it by feathering the throttle to make the nose tuck in.

In the nose, the luggage bay will take a punctured tyre if necessary (the spare is a spacesaver), or a small suitcase, though of course the rear seats offer stowage space too. It is overall a thoroughly useable car which can consume long distances with speed and comfort, or rumble amongst traffic without complaint. It looks like a supercar, yet is easy to enter, and, being based on quantity production parts, needs major servicing only at 30,000 miles.

Almost every extra is standard except leather upholstery and the pearlescent paint the test car had, although air-conditioning for UK will not be available for a while.

Compared with such coupes as the Toyota Supra or Mazda RX7, or Porsche 924S, the unblown GTA looks pricy at £19,040, but frankly its sophistication, performance, and exotic looks pitch it a class above these to a direct comparison with the Lotus Excel SE, and it fares well against its traditionalist British rival. Add the turbo, and Renault is gunning directly for the 944 Turbo — and the price of £23,635 undercuts Stuttgart significantly. In the end, the Porsche is the better-balanced, but if rarity, visual style and rear legroom count, this distinction may well be waived. GC